According to the 1971 census, 89 per cent of women workers in India and 93 per cent of women in Pakistan were illiterate. Ruth B. Dixon points out that these figures ‘symbolize a state of social and psychological dependency on men and on the small elite of women in the community who can read and write.’ They symbolize, too, women’s bondage to the home and family, isolation and difficulty in breaking out of this rut.
This is not to say they are unproductive: on the contrary, they are the mainstays of Muslim and Hindu society. But their productivity is invisible, based as it is on maintaining the home, spending hours every day preparing food or tending the crops and the family.
Dixon proposes that non-agricultural work for women is a hopeful, productive answer to the self-perpetuating syndrome of rural poverty and continuous child-bearing. She justifies this with examples of existing programmes and suggests that such a radical change could be introduced through workers’ cooperatives run solely for and by women.
A vital precondition for success is wage parity with male counterparts doing the same work. Another is having this industrial ‘muscle’ reflected in their social status within the community. Without a voice, women workers are mere symbols.